Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I am falling so far behind in my posts.....We dodged out of modern Spain and spent two days back in the mountains of Navarre and Aragon, where things have not changed a ton since........well, maybe Henri IV? And no, that is not Henri the I.V., as in the Intra Venous, junkie Henri.....that is Henri Quatre. Henri was a Frenchman, who reinvigorated the stale and sterile Aragonese bloodline, and got blessed with the Kingdom of France for his trouble.

OldHenri seems to have set the technical standards for the Pyrenees, and was not a firm believer in the system of tubes known as the internet.....or the whole cell phone thing. If you ever want a real vacation, away from all that communication stuff.....Aragon and Navarre are the place for you. I suggest an MV Agusta or a good Alfa Romeo as travelling companions, because Henri definitely believed in roads......and they are all perfect. And empty.

Upon arrival here in España, we ran the table.......with seven Michelin stars in less than a week, plus Bar Inopia, Victor's and two days at Rafa's in Roses. There were serious gastric and financial side effects to go along with the gastronomic excess. Think: two bowls of angulas......tiny baby eels the size of angel hair pasta......90 euros a bowl. That is what I get for ordering in Basque! Eskerrik asko!

The angulas were sauteed in stainless mesh pans over cherrywood charcoal.........Ah, forget it. I hope PETA does not find out.......we felt like Anthony Hopkins should have been dining with us, with Jody Foster as his date.

I am thinking that PETA does not have a strong presence in Spain as yet. In two days of kicking it with Rafa we did not eat a single thing that had not been twitching until moments before. Before we left, Amanda had sworn off lobster after spending a day babysitting six two-pounders and then being in the room for their dispatch. Hey, I even stabbed them in the head before boiling them alive! Rafa doesn´t go for that....you lose to much juju when you stab them. Rafa just tosses them on the grill and holds them down until their juju parts coagulate. Sort of like waterboarding for lobsters. He did admit that most Americans only order lobster once from him......

Rafa, like virtually every other magic Spanish chef, does not go in for those frufru vegetable and potatoey things. Straight protein....maybe a little bread on the side. Whew.....rough on the Yank innards.

Anyway......we finally made it to Donostia for the big weekend of marching bands, and marching Michelin stars. We have been waiting for a year to eat at Arzak again, and weep into our plates. We have dined vicariously....by sending three or four groups of friends to dine in our places.

Last year we also made rezzies in the middle of the Tamorrada, and discovered too late that our car was trapped and all the cab drivers were drunk. We had to run about three miles.....Amanda in her nice shoes, me in my jacket and tie. Nice American arrival.....soaked in sweat, late, flustered, filthy.

This year we did some research, and took the bus. Something about taking the bus to a three-star meal appeals to the rebel in me. All power to the people! Pass the foie gras!

I remain incapable of being such a prick Ugly American that I take fotos of each plate, and I do not have Conall´s professional skill and discretion, so I came up with an alternative: I bought a DAT recorder that looks like a cell phone and leave it innocently on the table. This way we have a fighting chance at remembering the dozen or more courses.....each!!!!! and maybe translating the sommelier´s aria about the obscure wines they find for us.

We arrived in one piece, and tried to be cool about the masked anti-terror police with the machine guns in front of the restaurant. They were just kicking it, waiting for the bus. We were shown to the dreaded Siberia of upstairs....which we like, because of the light and the windows. We are comforted by the presence of other douche bag foreigners like the French, Japanese and the Canadians we found around us. The waiters prefer the upstairs because we furriners are more fun, and less demanding. Even so, they had done their homework once again...they knew who we were, when we had been there, what we had ordered, who we had sent to them....and what they had ordered! Attention to detail!

Hold that thought......

So here is what you get for 150 euros for lunch these days:

Mango relleno de queso
Arroz crujiente con hongos
Raiz de loto con mousse de arraitxiki

Ostras templadas con piel de pimientos y encina
Manazanas con aceite de foie
Polvo de aceite de oliva blanco y bogavente
El huevo a la gallina

Rape con bronce
Lenguado mimetico

Corzo con bizcocho de algas
Tacos de vacuno con resina vegetal y yn9o de bota

Caldo frio y piedra pomez
Chocolate con esmeraldas y minerales
Ravioli de champagne
Pina asada pomposa

Arraitxiki is the town fish...Basque sea bream
Corzo is roebuck
Vacuno is a kind of beef
Rape is monkfish
Lengua is sole
Bogavente is lobster.....don´t look!
The big winners were the lobster with powdered olive oil. Don´t ask....they have a lab at Arzak where a loonie (in a good way....) named Xabi Guttierrez works on concepts. Xabi does all the design work. The appetizers were presented on a steel grill reminiscent of a subway grating, and on a block of alabaster. All the plates are interesting shapes and colors......Spanish plate and flatware makers compete to get the contracts with the big chefs the way Adidas tries to get Michael Vick to......well, you get the picture.
Amanda had the best egg she ever had. Duck skin crunchies.....a big sheet of pepper and oak something that covered the dish and then melted to season the egg. Her roebuck had something similar.....showy, but it all blended together and was part of the taste as well as the look.
The monkfish was bronzed......like the chick in Goldfinger. The bronze was made only of onion somehow, and accompanied by bronze flowers....also only onion.
Meanwhile, for our 300 euros.....I was already drifting. The sommelier is a famous asshole who I have always defended because he treated us well. This time, rather than struggle with a huge wine list of wines we have no clue of (last time Amanda picked number 22 red....and it worked!) we asked him to do a wine pairing for us. This had worked out fabulously at Zortziko, El Poblet and Sant Pau. We had stuff we would never order (palomino fino?) and that matched the food in ways only a true artist could conceive of.
This time, Prick Face suggested the Cava we already had ordered, Txacoli, a Rioja chardonnay and the house Rioja. I thought, well......he must know. Txacoli is a bar wine, made locally.....and slightly spumante. Great for a cheap date with your college girl friend. The chardonnay was.....well, chardonnay. The red was actually good, what we saw of it, because we never saw the wine guy after the Txacoli course. We spent two courses with no wine at all.
I started to get grumpy. Then I noticed the edges of the plates weren´t wiped, and that there were fingerprints in the various elegant presentations. One of the sauces painted on one of my dishes did not respond to a finger touch for a taste....or to a full on scraping with a knife. I suspected piles of painted plates, stacked in the back, waiting for foreigners.
We are reasonably anal about plate wiping, even in Cachagua. The ghost of Momie Hilde, my German chef godmother is always at my elbow: "You can vipe it, Mika.....but iss it clean?" I had lunch with Albert Adria...brother of Ferran....and he talked about how at El Bulli they have five plate inspectors.....and then Ferran. If one plate in a group for a table is the slightest bit off.....all five or six plates go in the trash. This was clearly not happening at Arzak.
I figured maybe the chef and his daughter were off for the fiesta that day.....but no. Here they came to take their bows. What the fuck is going on in their kitchen?
I was pretty well over it by dessert.....having sat through my meat course with no red wine. They had five wait people that I could see: the disappearing Prick Face, the fetal alcohol bread chick, the waitress Yolande, the captain Urco, and a waitress for the other end of the room of 13 tables. Urco, Fetal Alcohol, and Prick Face were apparently doing double duty downstairs as well with the white folks. Even in Cachagua we have more staff than this, and you have to push it to get more than four courses.
And our wine guy does not disappear.
One of the desserts involved pouring things and dry ice and foaming fumes. Cool, but Bahama Billy´s has it, too.
I suddenly realized! I was trapped in the Spanish Sardine Factory with the other tourists....and they were stealing my wallet. Fuck.
Urco and Yolande realized the depth of my.........grumpiness to be polite. Urco grovelled impressively. Yolande was smooth as silk. At first I was reassured...then I realized: they are GOOD at covering up mistakes. They should have been freaked out and blushing.....not seamlessly making excuses and plying us with Cava. This is the routine.
Anyway.....we got a private tour of the secret lab of Xabi out of the deal. The inner sanctum.
One can only hope that Xabi comes up with way to pull the chefs attention from the lines of coke they are cleaning up....and focus them more on the plates going out to the customers. What would that be like?
But, hey.....it was a gorgeous day. The bus ride back to town was great. What the heck was I going to do with three hours and 390 euros anyway on a Saturday?


Blogger Onthemenu said...

I found your blog while looking for the meaning of "bogavente", which we enjoyed at Arzak a few months ago. Love your "wild and crazy" posting and we couldn't agree more with your description of the sommelier. We thought maybe it had to do with the fact that he was the only male (?) serving in the dining room

11:37 AM  

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